’m always amused when knowing moviegoers let everyone for five rows around them in on the truth: that the mountains we’re looking at in The Deer Hunter are not really in Pennsylvania but somewhere out west; that the Spectrum in Rocky II is really the Forum in Los Angeles; that Jane Fonda’s naked body is in fact the body of a stand-in.
The movies, of all the arts, bring appearance and reality so close together that we want to confuse them. It doesn’t matter where the mountains and the sports arena are, or whose body we’re looking at. I call these bits of cheating “movie truth,” and I find them true enough. But what I’ve got this month is a lot of troubled movies and I’m going to kick sand in most of their faces. A couple try to tell the truth about the Sixties and turn that era into rambling fiction. A master of movie truth, former stunt man Hal Needham, directs a picture with some of the worst stunts I’ve ever seen. The latest Airport flick has the most unbelievable flying effects since Flash Gordon landed in that Model T of a rocket ship over 40 years ago. Even movie truth seems to be taking the Fifth Amendment this month.
The Amityville Horror. “A True Story,” it says on the Bantam Paperback of this book, which has allegedly “made millions believe in the unbelievable” and made millions for author Jay Anson. This “true story” with its millions of believers has also been called a hoax. Does anyone care?
We live in a time when people speak of “true facts,” perhaps forgetting that the word fact means, or used to mean, something true. People expect to be lied to: by their government, Detroit, Madison Avenue, the media. We don’t care if Amity-ville Horror is true or false, because those once mutually exclusive concepts are out having a three-martini lunch and striking a million-dollar deal.
When I read Anson’s book, however, I didn’t wonder whether it was true. I wondered why an editor hadn’t done some work on his lousy writing. As I watched director Stuart Rosenberg’s film version, with script by Sandor Stern, I wondered what happened to the man who made his feature film debut with Cool Hand Luke – and has been cooling his talent ever since.
The movie initially disarms by establishing believable relationships among George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) and her three children from a previous marriage. Brolin and Kidder are good enough to remint the cliche of the obligatory lovemaking scene. They have bought a house where a grotesque multiple murder was committed (you’ll think of In Cold Blood), and the house soon starts doing strange things: Swarms of flies collect in one room, voices and apparitions in another; it even spooks a priest (Rod Steiger in one of his least restrained performances) and a nun. You’ve seen it all before, and better done, in Psycho, The Exorcist, The Omen.
The Amityville Horror is a Remembrance of Better Horror Films Past. That’s true. It’s even a fact.
The Muppet Movie. Odd, I never realized that Kermit the Frog is left-handed. Figures: He’s an offbeat frog who strums his banjo to a decidedly different drummer. I’m pretty fond of Kermit, and of this movie, which is clever enough to enchant big people and funny enough to entertain little people. If you’re a family, go to The Muppet Movie as a family. If not, hire some kids and take them.
The plot opens with the Muppet gang’s arrival at World Wide Studios, Screening Room D, for a private showing of the Muppet movie. The picture then explains how they got to Hollywood. This isn’t easy.
Kermit decides to leave his swamp after an agent (Dom DeLuise) shows him an ad in Variety about auditions for a frog. Then it’s on the road for a series of adventures (lots of cameo bits by stars like James Coburn, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, et al.) and misadventures (Charles Durning wants Kermit to do the ads for his frog-legs restaurant chain – alive or stuffed, if necessary).
There are some catchy songs by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher, the script by Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns has the expected and still effective corn (a fork in the road; yeah, a fork), and director James Frawley understands that the Muppets are as real as Pinocchio and Snow White. They are real, and also magical. We homo sapiens can’t often make that claim.
Dracula. He’s supposed to be over 500 years old and it seems like we’ve seen at least that many movie versions of him, forgetting all the variations flapping around theaters and bookstores. We don’t just go to see Count D, we drop in on him, old friends, and wonder how he will handle the inevitable question about the wine, the howling of wolves, and the First long bend over a luscious lady’s neck. Dracula has made critics of us all.
On a scale of one to ten, this Dracula achieves about a six-plus. Adapted by W. D. Richter and directed by John Bad ham, it is almost always handsome, Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography being appropriately dark and moody. There are stylish, campy touches, like the evening when the Count (Frank Langella) welcomes Lucy (Kate Nelligan), and she doesn’t blink twice over the thousands of candles everywhere and that gigantic face masquerading as interior decoration. And there’s a dandy effect when the Count dives through a window and turns into a wolf as he lands outside.
But there is the matter of pace – lugubrious after a while – and the Big Moments: the confrontation with Mina as vampire (the great Laurence Olivier weeps – nay, wails! – as if he knows the movie has suddenly turned foolish); and Langella’s scene-chewing death of Dracula is perhaps inevitable in this toothsome tale.
Yes, Langella is sexy. But I thought Louis Jourdan sexier in the TV version a while back. 1 even preferred the recent stage version with the witty Gorey set designs. It may be that too much blood has gone under the teeth.
The Concorde – Airport ’79. The situations in the Airport movies have a dream-like quality: A pilot is lowered into a torn-open cockpit; a plane crashes into the ocean and sinks intact like a sub; a runaway attack missile closes in on the Concorde in the latest and looniest of the series. The situations are so wonderfully wacko that the imagination soars, without benefit of seatbelt, at the endless, silly possibilities.
Mind you, they’re not as silly as Eric Roth, who publicly admits to being the scribe for a movie that seems to have been laughed into existence during a drunken office party. His subplots keep floating toward you like trays of canapes: Wealthy Robert Wagner is having an affair with TV newswoman Susan Blakely, pilot Alain Delon is having an affair with Sylvia Kristel, pilot George Kennedy has a one-night stand with hooker Bibi Anders-son, sports reporter John Davidson is having an affair with Russian gymnast Andrea Marcovicci. In the midst of all this hard-breathing sex, Martha Raye is almost a relief: She just wants to use the toilet.
The Villain. He could stand in for the Marlboro Man, and probably rides better. Former stunt man and current director Hal Needham once made more per week – a thousand, twelve hundred – than his good old buddy Burt Reynolds. Then Burt began to make more and worried that friend Needham was going to total himself. There were at least 47 reasons for worry: Needham has broken 45 bones and his back (twice). Needham gives Reynolds credit for putting a lot on the line over a script Needham wrote a few years back, even though Reynolds thought it had some of the worst dialogue he’d ever read. But the script was whipped into shape, the movie turned out to be Smokey and the Bandit, and Needham had a piece of a picture that made millions.
I happen to prefer Hooper, Needham’s splendid homage to stunt men with possibly Reynolds’ best screen role. You may have noticed that I am avoiding Need-ham’s third film, Villain, which makes the Apple Dumpling Gang look like Restoration Comedy. There are characters called Cactus Jack (Kirk Douglas), an inept gunman constantly upstaged by his horse, Whiskey; Charming Jones (Ann-Margret), who would like a little action; and Handsome Stranger (Arnold Schwarzenegger). And the flick is worse than those names. Needham will next direct a sequel to Smokey. It will probably make millions.
Two recent movies – More American Graffiti and The Wanderers – try to deal with the Sixties in a mixed-media collage: lots of music, lots of vignettes, and no shape whatsoever.
The Graffiti sequel gets a bit arch by focusing on various New Year’s Eves and cutting among a number of anecdotal biographies – of racer John Milner (Paul Le Mat), of Vietnam soldier Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith), of young marrieds Steve and Laurie Bolander (Ron Howard and Cindy Williams), of would-be hippie Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark).
Writer-director B. W. L. Norton uses multiple screens effectively, but after about an hour the histories begin to drag. We keep wondering when John Milner and Terry will get killed, as we were told at the end of the first Graffiti. The picture seems to drift rather than move. It could have ended in any of a dozen places. Without Richard Dreyfuss, by far the most interesting character (and actor) in the first film, the whole enterprise is a bit like staring into the hole of a doughnut. His character, moody and intelligent, could have created a far more interesting remembrance of the Sixties than this unfocused doodling.
The Wanderers – there’s truth in that title – is even worse. It starts out as a sort of satire (I think) of recent gang films. A kid is trying to make out with his girl in front of a TV set. At last she “puts out,” and the kid braces his feet against the set, which shows a huge explosion. Mean-while, the kid’s fellow gang members get in trouble with the Baldies and there is a scuffle. And so on.
In a cast of clones from other movies, only John Friedrich has authenticity – unlike this aesthetic wanderer in search of form, meaning, and theme.
A Little Romance. They’re smart enough to read and critique Martin Heidegger, they’re in Paris (with plans to take off for Venice), and they are in love. It would have to be First Love, because she’s 12 and he’s 13. Diane Lane and The-lonious Bernard are the kids who walk this high wire of a picture without a net, deftly avoiding archness and sentimentality. They get considerable help from Laurence Olivier in a sly mood. Director George Roy Hill has a way with kids, as he proved years ago with the charming World of Henry Orient. Scripted by Allan Burns and scored by the always marvelous” Georges Delerue (Jules and Jim).
Bloodline. Admirers of Audrey Hepburn, her bone structure, and her wardrobe will probably not give a fig about a story line that would make pulp paper burst into tears of laughter. The fantasy plot is about relatives haggling over what to do with a family-owned drug company. Hepburn has controlling power and wants to keep the company in the family. Mean-while, someone is trying to kill her, prob-ably the same person who killed her father. Gert Frobe plays an inspector out of an old Fritz Lang movie, Omar Sharif impersonates Terry-Thomas, Romy Schneider behaves like a tarantula, James Mason indulges his aging, Lolita-like wife Michele Philips, and Ben Gaz-zara does his by-now patented sleep-walking performance. Terence Young directs like a juggler with a terminal case of the DT’s. That musical chameleon En-nio Morricone slums romantically. There is a sick and gratuitous subplot about “snuff” films. Your sensibility might need an Alka-Seltzer after this one. I still admire Audrey Hepburn and her bone structure, but Edith Head should probably review the wardrobe.
Escape From Alcalraz.Clint Eastwood was clearly destined to play Frank Morris, the man who tried to escape, back in 1960, from America’s version of Devil’s Island. Don’t misunderstand. This is not one of those old James Cagney affairs, but closer to Robert Bresson’s classic A Man Escaped. Both pay ritualistic attention to the process of their respective escapes, making us co-prisoners as it were. But while Bresson’s film is ultimately religious, Don Siegel’s is a cool finger given to a cerebrally cruel warden (Patrick McGoohan). Siegel and Eastwood also seem destined for each other, bringing out the best of each other’s underrated talents.
Game of Death. This movie should be called Operation Lazarus. The idea is to make the late Bruce Lee rise from the dead for his last flick, only part of which had been filmed when Bruce – uh, kicked off. Lee fanatics will easily spot recycled footage and the Lee “double,” although they should be satisfied with the final sequence of fights, especially the one with basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The In-Laws. The season’s most charismatic couple may turn out to be Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. Arkin plays an uptight dentist; Falk may be a nutsy CIA agent, who probably lost his marbles in his crib. Some hoods feel Falk has been remiss over the payment of a million-five (a matter of stolen engravings to print money). They want to give him a new navel or two. Arkin gets innocently involved in the loony tunes, which take them to a south-of-border encounter with a fruitcake general, and the movie turns Monty Pythonish. The picture could have used more crazies like that general, but in a movie season that has been remiss in the comic department, a half-good half-wit comedy like The In-Laws is like the first beer at the end of a 98-degree day.
Lost and Found. One of the puzzlements of the arts is how good someone can be in a certain work – Glenda Jackson or George Segal in A Touch of Class, for instance – and then how bad they can be. Even more puzzling is that Melvin Frant wrote and directed both Class and Lost and Found, and you wonder where he lost his talent and if it will ever be found again. Didn’t anyone notice that the script for Lost and Found has about as much coherence as a lost-and-found department? This movie is so inept, so dull, that I’m afraid to revisit Class. Was it one of the best romantic comedies of the 1970’s? Or am I getting retrospectively sentimental? Risk the rerun of Class on TV, and let Found get lost.
Moonraker. The precredits sequence, with 007 (Roger Moore) leaving an airplane sans parachute and skydiving toward a guy who has one is more impressive than all the flying effects in Superman. That’s just the beginning of what seems to me the best Bond of the series, in terms of pace, imaginative variations on the old gimmicks, and a splendid heavy called Drax (Michael Londsdale). Sean Connery is still the Bond and From Russia, With Love my sentimental favorite, but Moonraker is a better movie. Give equal parts credit to the smashing special effects, Christopher Wood’s literatescript, Jean Tournier’s classy cinematography, and Lewis Gilbert’s stylish direction. Richard Kiel is back as Jaws and healmost steals the show. Encore, Mr. Bond.
Rocky II. “The story continues. . . “goes the ad, but it’s more like a hoagiecoming back on you. Sylvester Stallonegoes for the heart. It’s shameless. It’s alsoeffective. I understand he’s already written a script for Rocky III. That may require Alka-Seltzer Plus.